by Helen Simpson

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Life can afford extravagance, books cannot; for this reason nobody will
dream of believing in my two grandfathers. They are too true to be
good--good fiction, at any rate; if I try to give some kind of picture of
them, it is because they frame between them a vision of a golden age,
which could only have existed in brand-new countries, among brand-new
circumstances and laws. It was not a golden age for everybody, wives or
servants for instance, but for these two it was; they were, to use a word
which is almost dead, characters.

I am sorry to think what would happen to these two old gentlemen if they
had the misfortune to live now; it would be something legal, that is
certain, falling heavily to crush their magnificent egotism and
eccentricity. Their wives, who in the 'seventies put up with them with
the uncomprehending patience accorded by Insurance Companies to Acts of
God, would nowadays divorce them. Servants would bring, and win, actions
against them for assault. As for their families, these would scatter
immediately after the first row or two, and go forth to earn their
livings with all the horrid freedom that the post-war period accords. In
an age of standardisation these old crusted, crusty gentlemen, mellow
even in their rages as the Madeira which they sent for a roll round the
Horn before bottling, would have the deuce of a time.

Doctors, to begin with, who in the last half century have swelled up into
demi-gods, would be the first to interfere. They would view the
couple, with their picturesquely flushed faces, their sudden wraths after
meals, as mere examples of treacherous glands, and hardening arteries.
(Character is a word which has died from the doctors' vocabulary too.)
They would accept five-guinea fees to persuade the old gentlemen that
what they needed was calm; and there would be a great recommending of
suitable institutions--"quite in the country, you know, cooking not bad,
and just supervision, nothing irksome." When the doctors had done, the
lawyers would take their turn. Death duties, they would tell their
victims, could best be avoided by making over the estate during lifetime
to a reliable son. Relatives would then appear, with hints, backed by
statistics, concerning vegetarian diet, and the undesirability of port by
the pint twice a day. And at last, having shorn the bewildered
unfortunates, for their own good, of home, money, wine and liberty, the
twentieth century would turn the key on them with a sigh of genuine

There was none of this in the colonies of last century, which was, for
the tyrants, the very grandest imaginable time. There were doctors, true,
and lawyers, but they were kept in their place, and the tyrants used
them. Land was for the asking. Convicts were done with, to everybody's
relief--the last batch reached Sydney in 1840; but there was labour to be
had, labour which, like the doctors and lawyers, knew its place, and took
its wage with a finger to the forelock. There were English immigrants who
came after gold, and remained to use spade and shears. There were Chinese
in numbers, who came, as they explained by an interpreter to astonished
immigration officers, to earn prouder lacquered coffins in this rich new
land than their own exhausted paddy-fields could yield them. (The price
of the coffin once safe in a canvas bag, they broke their term of service
and returned to China assured of respect.) To deal with the land and the
labour, a great many laws were made, and printed, and forgotten on
shelves; while on the land existed superbly a number of men and women who
were laws to themselves; characters, obeyed as such, loved, feared, and
occasionally murdered as such. And here we come upon those prime old
personages, ripe and shocking and satisfying as good Stilton cheese, the
despair of their families and neighbours, and worth the lot put together;
Great-grandfather Boissy, and his son, Gustave-Félicité.

I may say at once that I never knew either.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940013740419
Publisher: WDS Publishing
Publication date: 01/07/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 464 KB

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